Essay / On This Day

Today is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Birthday

Bonhoeffer If you were only going to say one thing about theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), you would tell the story that led up to his death in a Nazi prison on April 9, 1945, at age 39. But today is the anniversary of his birth, so here is a reflection Bonhoeffer’s way of living a Christian life: It was polyphonic. It meant hearing at least two melodies simultaneously.

Writing from prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge on May 20, 1944, Bonhoeffer tried to give counsel about how to hold all the scattered pieces of life together during the stresses, the actual bombings, of war. Bonhoeffer, engaged but behind bars, strengthened his friend who was married, had a new baby, and feared the threat of possible wartime separation. He shared with his friend the following powerful meditation on human love and divine love:

There’s always a danger in all strong, erotic love that one may lose what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts –not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes (which have their own complete independence but are yet related to the cantus firmus) is earthly affection. Even in the Bible we have the Song of Songs; and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there (see 7:6). It’s a good thing that the book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian (where is there such restraint in the Old Testament?). Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits. The two are “undivided and yet distinct,” in the words of the Chalcedonian Definition, like Christ in his divine and human natures. May not the attraction and importance of polyphony in music consist in its being a musical reflection of this Christological fact and therefore of our vita christiana? This thought didn’t occur to me till after your visit yesterday. Do you see what I’m driving at? I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has a firm support and can’t come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole in its own right. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going. Perhaps a good deal will be easier to bear in these days together, and possibly also in the days ahead when you’re separated. Please, Eberhard, do not fear and hate the separation, if it should come again with all its dangers, but rely on the cantus firmus. –I don’t know whether I’ve made myself clear now, but one so seldom speaks of such things… (from p. 303 of my old edition of the Letters and Papers from Prison)

These are classic words. The best commentary on them is in Jeremy Begbie’s book Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker Academic, 2007), pp. 156-162. Bonhoeffer, says Begbie, “envisages a polyphonous kind of life for the church in the world, a rich life shot through with joy… It is a life of ‘worldliness’ –not the worldliness of the secularist, denying God, nor the worldliness of a certain kind of aesthete, fleeing responsibility, but a fully down-to-earth kind of Christian life that can inlcude free, ‘aesthetic existence’ (friendship, art, etc.) while also being ethically alert and responsible.”

Bonhoeffer lived like that, and explained how it felt to do so. Begbie also draws attention to how Bonhoeffer practiced this polyphonic Christian life in prison. When the bombs started falling on the prison –now there’s a stressful situation!– Bonhoeffer reported that most of the prisoners were beside themselves:

When bombers come, they are all fear; when there is something nice to eat, they are all greed; when they are disappointed, they are all despair; when they are successful, they can think of nothing else. They miss the fullness of life… everything objective is dissolved for them into fragments. By contrast, Christianity puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time… life isn’t pushed back into a single dimension, but is kept multi-dimensional and polyphonous.

This is not just the stuff of Christians in extreme situations like prison or war. Polyphonic existence is a blessing of life in Christ, which “puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time.” It works for homework and for housework. It’s one of the major things to be learned from the life of Bonhoeffer.


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